School system drops lawsuit against Torres, finance chief

BUDGET HEARING: Board of Education Chairwoman Janice Marie Tenorio, far left, Commissioner of Education Alfred Ada, far right, and other education officials attend a budget hearing held in July. The department has dropped its lawsuit against Gov. Ralph DLG Torres and Secretary of Finance David Atalig over the fiscal 2020 budget. Photo courtesy of the Public School System

SAIPAN – The Public School System is no longer pursuing its lawsuit against Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Gov. Ralph DLG Torres and Secretary of Finance David Atalig over the PSS fiscal 2020 budget.

The Board of Education and Commissioner Alfred Ada, through attorney Tiberius Mocanu, filed a motion for voluntary dismissal on Monday.

Superior Court Associate Judge Joseph N. Camacho on the same day granted the dismissal without prejudice, which means that PSS can refile the lawsuit in the future.

In his order, Judge Camacho noted that the lawyers of the Settlement Fund, Joyce Tang and Nicole Torres-Ripple, did not sign the motion for voluntary dismissal.

Mocanu said the fund supports the dismissal, but wants the claims against the fund in the lawsuit dismissed with prejudice to avoid incurring additional legal expenses should PSS refile the claims in the future.

In its previous motion to intervene, the fund asked the court to declare that: (1) PSS is not entitled to 25% of the Settlement Fund Revolving Fund and the amounts appropriated for the 25% benefit payments appropriated under 4 CMC § 1803 because these amounts are constitutionally and contractually obligated payments under Article III, Section 20(a) of the CNMI constitution and the settlement agreement; and (2) PSS’s actions in seeking payment from amounts appropriated to the Settlement Fund violate the settlement agreement.

Judge Camacho has allowed the Settlement Fund to intervene in the lawsuit.

Regarding the Settlement Fund objection to dismissal without prejudice, the judge ordered the fund to file a written opposition to the PSS motion for voluntary dismissal by Nov. 22. PSS’s reply is due on Dec. 7.

“The parties should provide legal authority for their position and if necessary be prepared to call witness to support any factual allegations,” the judge said. He scheduled the hearing for 1:30 p.m. Dec. 15.

In March, the Board of Education voted 3-2 to authorize PSS to sue the governor and the finance secretary for “inaccurate allotments” made to the Public School System in fiscal year 2020 “in violation of the CNMI Constitution.”

Under the Constitution, PSS is guaranteed an annual budget of not less than 25% of the general revenues of the CNMI.

But according to the Office of the Attorney General, which represented the governor and the finance secretary in the lawsuit, the Commonwealth “denies any allegation or implication that PSS has not received its guaranteed budgetary appropriation.”

PSS was allotted 25.3% of the total local revenue and resources available for appropriation for commonwealth government activities in fiscal 2020, the AG’s office said.

On Oct. 20, board member Phillip Mendiola-Long of Tinian resigned. He was one of the three board members in favor of suing the government.

On Oct. 30, his successor, Antonio L. Borja, was sworn in.

Mendiola-Long and Borja are both appointees of the governor who had to fill the Tinian seat because there were no Tinian Board of Education candidates in the 2018 elections.